Maybe Nobel Laureate and former Vice President Al Gore was right. In An Inconvenient Truth, he spoke of twenty-foot sea level rises “in the near future” while showing animations of Florida, Shanghai, Calcutta and Manhattan being swallowed by sea level increases. A new study released today in Nature that analyzes fossil coral reefs in Mexico “suggests that a sudden rise of 6.5 feet to 10 feet occurred within a span of 50 to 100 years about 121,000 years ago, at the end of the last warm interval between ice ages.” Their conclusion: Sustained rapid ice loss and sea-level rise in the near future are possible.
A rise of 6.5-10 feet over 50-100 years is pretty remarkable. But 121,000 years ago? How much of that sea level rise was human-induced?
So what’s the takeaway?
1.) Al Gore was not right. Senior Policy Analyst Ben Lieberman writes, “Yet the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which Gore considers to be the gold standard of consensus science, projects an increase of 7 to 23 inches over the next century. The lower end of that range is about what has occurred — without serious consequences — over the last two centuries.”
2.) Adaptation to climate change is prudent; but changing the weather is impossible. Take hurricanes, for example. Changing the weather to prevent hurricanes is currently impossible, but adapting to hurricanes is not. States and cities have shown this by better preparing for hurricanes—building better levees, rebuilding sand dunes and upgrading building codes to withstand damage. In response to Katrina, the US Army Corps of Engineers installed sheet pilings as emergency closures in order to prevent water from entering the canals and re-flooding the city. Furthermore, the engineers took measures to raise and armor portions of area’s levees for better protection and worked with Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force to better understand hurricane movements.
When it comes to adaptation versus mitigation to address hurricanes, adaptation has winning advantages. Adaptation delivers the benefits sooner, with more certainty and without depending on the climate policies of hundreds of other countries.
This begets the question: Can humans really change greenhouse gas concentrations enough to prevent global warming and damaging storms? Often policymakers ignore the costs and overestimate the benefits when evaluating global-warming policies. The policy most often suggested is a cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon dioxide. Although the benefits in terms of global temperature decreases would be negligible, the costs would be astronomical.
The Heritage Foundation’s analysis of last year’s Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill found losses to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), adjusted for inflation, of $4.8 trillion. By 2029 the job losses in the manufacturing sector will be nearly 3 million. To put this in perspective, adjusting for likely increases in development along the coastline, this cost exceeds the damage of 650 hurricanes hitting the United States. This is in just the first 19 years when we would expect two actual hurricanes to make landfall.
On the other hand, despite the futility of CO2 cuts, there are many cost-effective, adaptive solutions that efficiently target specific problems and do not require globally adopted treaties.
As it should be, many of these adaptations are driven by markets. Seed companies develop drought and heat resistant strains that have increased agricultural productivity in the face of global warming. Low tech, but efficient, dams create reservoirs in the Himalayas to provide water supplies and irrigation during dry months. These simple, cost-effective technologies will help developing countries adapt as well rather than forcing them into costly international carbon reduction treaties. Capping CO2 only hinders the overall economic development of poorer countries and thus puts them in a worse position to adapt to climate change, if necessary.
Furthermore, more efficient and affordable climate-control technology makes commonplace the air conditioning that used to be reserved for only the wealthy.
Quite simply, adaptation addresses the problem directly while global warming policy schemes ignore alternative approaches, extract trillions of dollars from the economy and do very little to reduce warming.